Remembering on Memorial Day

If you pause for a few seconds to think about it, the way we mark Memorial Day is outrageous. For most Americans this day is about cookouts, trips to the mall, and a day off from work. The idea that we party and continue our exuberant spending rather than to remember our war dead should deeply offend any American. But who wants to slow the wheels of commerce to grieve?

Remembrance was not helped by our previous president, who told us that our patriotic duty during the Iraq War was to continue shopping. That’s a far cry from previous wars, when Americans were taught about shared sacrifice. I’m no fan of war, but if we have decided to go to war, then the cause had better be compelling (this one was not), the true costs of the war should be known (they were not), and the war effort should be shared by the whole nation, not just by our military (who tend to come from among the poor).

So, let us at least pause on Memorial Day. Let’s stop the din of cash registers and backyard grills. Let us remember the reason for this holiday. On Memorial Day, we are meant to remember our war dead — all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. This is not to be a jingoistic celebration of American might, but a somber remembrance. We would do well not to invoke “God bless America” today, but rather to join with Abraham Lincoln in praying for God’s mercy and in hope that we are “on God’s side.”

I close with this fine poem by Wilfred Owens (set brilliantly to music by Benjamin Britten as part of the War Requiem).

What passing bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them at all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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3 Responses

  1. Scott, in England and many other countries, as you know, this weekend is simply the “Spring Bank Holiday” — the marker of the transition from Spring to Summer really. Its character as a day of cookouts and shopping sales is one reason why some of us have turned to keeping Remembrance Sunday in November — the Sunday closest to November 11 (Veterans Day in this country and Armistice Day in much of the rest of the world) — as the day to remember and pray for the war dead, and to pray for peace while we’re at it. My blog posting and sermon for the Remembrance Sunday can be found here:

    At S. Stephen’s for the past several years, we’ve kept Remembrance Sunday with one of the big choral Requiems — Faure, Durufle, etc.

  2. You have been awarded the prestigious Lemonade Stand Award

  3. Alan Gates says:

    Well done good sir! Having been criticized for not commemorating Memorial Day sufficiently in weekend services of worship I am appalled that this day is lumped with so many other days to bounce around the various proofs of national pride. The 24 hour media box squawked out the usual, thanks to our heroes, and all those in the armed service. There is a reason why Veterans Day and Memorial Day are not the same. During the previous administration the cost of democracy was in fact hidden from media exposure. The patriots of those years did not want us to see even a picture of a flag laden coffin exiting a C130.

    But in the founding of occasion we have just observed, at the close of the civil war, service men were called to observe, “no form or ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit…Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.”

    A simple search of the old wiki gives us these simple words, that we remember the cost that has been paid for the sake of unity, that in hope we never pay it again.